Arrogance, ignorance and the Constitution

Arrogance and ignorance are, the adage says, a fatal combination. But what does it mean to be ignorant? An answer jumps out of the responses to a recent, annual Constitution Day civics survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The Center queried 1,000 American male and female adults -— the usual size of a survey sample, providing a margin of error of less than 3.7 percent — and found many appalling things. 

Only 26 percent of respondents could name all three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial).  Six years ago, when Annenberg first began this annual poll, 38 percent could do so.

Only two-thirds of the responders could name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment to the Constitution, and 37 percent could not name one. 

Some 53 percent think immigrants in this country illegally do not have any rights under the Constitution, when precedent going back to an 1886 Supreme Court case, and upheld repeatedly since, says they do. On that point, 24 percent do not think that Muslims have the same constitutional rights as other Americans, and 21 percent don’t think atheists have them. Only 15 percent could name all four rights guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment: freedom of speech, of the press, of religion and of assembly.

The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The survey responses do not demonstrate stupidity but ignorance, since the respondents can be presumed to be either high school graduates — Census Bureau statistics show that 88 percent of adults in the U.S. are — or college graduates, as the same Census Bureau study shows that 333 of every 1,000 adults are.  So they’re not unschooled and presumably they’re not stupid.   

What is showing is their ignorance, since in American high schools it is difficult to avoid learning that there are the three interdependent branches of government, and that the First Amendment guarantees the rights to freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly.  

So either they don’t want to know such facts because the facts don’t square with their beliefs, or they don’t believe the facts because they have been unduly influenced by bloviators of cable-TV, talk-radio and the internet who disregard the facts.  And not just those on the right — the survey results show that while two-thirds of the responders who don’t believe that immigrants and Muslims have any rights self-identify as conservative, 46 percent of the liberals and moderates also don’t think Muslims and immigrants have the same rights as the rest of us.

Fortunately, the survey did not ask anything complicated, such as how the checks and balances system works, so we do not have any wildly wrong answers to, say, whether an executive branch attempt to deny constitutional rights to Muslims or illegal immigrants could be overturned by a judicial branch ruling.

Such appalling ignorance has lots of consequences.  It translates easily into the sort of arrogance that contends that people whom we don’t like are lesser human beings. It fosters a climate that has elected a president who appears not to have read the Constitution, and who believes he can trample with impunity over the rights guaranteed to individuals by the Bill of Rights, and who for instituting actions against certain groups that he doesn’t like, continues to receive the cheers of his electoral base.      

If we are to have real debates on matters of substance — immigration, the future of work, international security, the degree to which wealth should be taxed — the participants need to conduct them on the basis of facts and on what our Constitution allows and disallows. If a majority — a majority! — of Americans are as ignorant of the basic facts of American governance as this survey indicates, there will be no such substantive debates. 

Over the course of 241 years, our democracy has survived many assaults, but I fail to see how this country can continue as a democracy if its people remain so willfully ignorant of our government’s basic building blocks. How can we expect the checks and balances system to work if so many citizens don’t even know it exists?


Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury.